Little trouble in big China

To stay on target as it moves people to its cities, the country has to construct the equivalent of a major European capital every month. The result is astonishing, as visitors can see in Tianjin, which invited writers from around the world to witness ‘the greatest realignment of effort in human history’

 

What’s cooking in China? Only the greatest realignment of effort in human history. At the downhill end of Castle Street in the Co Limerick village of Castleconnell is a Chinese restaurant called Bamboo Gardens. My grandparents lived on Castle Street, in a cottage built before the street changed its name from Old Street, before the street even became Old Street – there was no other street – and before the village’s previous incarnation of Stradbally.

Now Castle Street has its own Celtic Tiger shopping centre. It contains more than a dozen commercial premises, few of which are occupied. One of these is Bamboo Gardens. Chinese in Castle Street? My granny wouldn’t have believed it.

We are no longer strangers to things Chinese. I am on my way to the city of Tianjin as part of a writer-in-residence programme, a cultural aspect of a colossal development project known as Binhai New Area.

The idea is that they stick a whole lot of high-tech industry into a newly built hub on the site of a deep-water port, shift a multitude of people to work and live there in ecological and social harmony, and, because culture is important to them, invite a cabal of writers from around the world to come and mix with their writers. What could go wrong?

The first day

Last Monday in Beijing our little group of poets, novelists and short-story writers assembles in the drizzly aftermath of days of tropical rainstorm. We are from Armenia, Australia, Croatia, Jordan, Korea, Poland, the US and, of course, Castleconnell. The rain has washed away any trace of smog, but the air is at condensation point, milky grey all around.

Visibility is a maximum of four blocks. Skyscrapers loom at the edge of vision; their ghostly silhouettes accentuate the contrast between high-rise 21st-century corporate China and the daily bustle of cars, electric scooters, bicycles, motorised carts and calmly teeming pedestrians on the cracked, uneven pavements of inner suburbia.

For an hour our coach inches its way outward through this mass of weaving humanity, until we are abruptly on the outskirts. The highway is instantly clear in front of us, and for two hours we coast at full speed along an ultramodern four-lane highway, complete with American-style advertising hoardings every half-kilometre or so.

Our destination is Binhai, home to two and a half million souls at present, a district of the conurbation of Tianjin – home to 15 million people overall, and the third city of China. Tianjin came to prominence in 1403 when Emperor Yongle of the Ming dynasty moved the capital from Nanjing, in the south, to nearby Beijing. Rice and other goods for Beijing arrived in the port of Tianjin by sea and via the Grand Canal.

The canal is an extraordinary feat of engineering. Constructed between the fifth century BC and the fifth century AD, it links the Yangtze and Yellow rivers via 1,700km of waterway. In the 19th century the busy port caught the eyes of the expanding European powers, which eventually found an excuse to lay siege to it, culminating in an unfair treaty – does this remind you of anywhere? – that allowed the Europeans to set up independent concession areas, as in Shanghai.

Tensions seethed, culminating in the Opium Wars of 1839-42 and 1856-60, as well as, finally, the Boxer rebellion of 1900. Remnants of 19th-century French, British, Italian and Italian architecture remain in downtown Tianjin.

Megopolis

The weather means we skirt the city without seeing any of this, the only evidence of a burgeoning megopolis being ghostly clusters of new and part-built 30-storey accommodation blocks rising straight up from intensively cultivated fields and fish farms.

These towers make the tallest Ballymun blocks, at 15 storeys, look like garden sheds, and it is tempting to tut-tut and shake one’s head knowingly. What will happen when people try to live in these things?

But the tenants of these new buildings will come not from a declining inner city but from the job-free, money-free, spouse-free, prospect-free countryside all over China. As these skyblocks materialise from the haze I realise that, on the two-hour drive from Beijing, we have seen only one or two tiny, low clay-brick villages, and not a single freestanding house. This is what a planned country looks like.

The only other visible buildings have been abominable-looking dwellings – or, with luck, sheds – on the edge of muddy fish ponds. Not a place to live unless you are partial to mosquitoes. Despite the photographs we had seen before this trip I begin to wonder which floor of which skyscraper our accommodation will be on.

I need not have worried. We arrive during sheet rainfall at Lingtong Examination House, a two-storey building in the classic Chinese style, constructed in 2006. Upward-curving roofs of elaborately decorated tiles, colourfully decorated mantles, temple-like porticos: it looks like everything you imagine Chinese emperors living in.

Inside, the halls and function rooms are filled with beautiful scroll ink paintings, and huge sculptures in wood and stone, with an emphasis on the natural and rustic. The initial word is that this is the private residence of a famous artist and that these are his works.

The more I wander around the more I think that this multitalented guy must work day and night, have an army of helpers and be at least 150 years old. No, it turns out that these works are by many artists. It is the collection of a man involved in real estate. There is an unmistakable whiff of deja vu. Details are unforthcoming. It is apparently not always wise to broadcast wealth in China.

When the rain ceases we find that our accommodation is part of a compound of equally beautiful, extravagant buildings, many full of Chinese art. There is a labyrinth of pagodas, koi ponds, covered walkways, Buddhist-style temples and accommodation buildings, with colourful flower beds run through with marrow and pumpkin, patterns of box hedge, and crowned by giant sunflowers. We appear to be the only guests, and I am the first person to inhabit my very modern room.

The compound is bounded west and north by a water-world theme park, funfair and ornamental gardens. To the south we abut the concrete storm wall of the River Hai He, one-time main channel of the Yellow river. On the east we are bounded by a nondescript collection of low buildings guarded by dogs. (“Oh it’s some company, I don’t know.”)

From that quarter comes at times the simultaneous kung-fu-style shouting of large numbers of men and at other times the concentrated clatter and bang of small-arms fire, or sporadic rifle shots. Enough said.

Skyblocks

Finally a clear, blue-sky day, so a quick trip to the top of the storm wall to get my bearings. At all points of the horizon are clusters of skyblocks of one kind or another. Directly cross the 500m-wide river the scenery is 100 per cent heavy chemical industry, from which comes a constant muted roar. Citywards, our compound and park bounds an area of old six- to 10-storey blocks and mixed high-rise offices and hotels that, in many countries, might be the capital city, but here it is impossible to say if it is even the centre of a satellite of Binhai.

Although most of this area is old – 10 to 20 years, I am guessing – some new buildings, of moderate, six-storey scale, are under construction – a hospital wing and a mall for example – and all of the pavements.

But in a meandering loop of the river immediately south of us is a distinct cluster of about 25 skyscrapers. The map tells me it is Xiangluowan Business District. At least half of the towers are still obviously under construction, as were the accommodation blocks on the outskirts, and none yet has any lights in the evening. Beyond the business district, across another meander of the river, is Yujiapu Finance Area. Here the tower cranes are only assembling, and have not left the ground yet.

A few days later I will see on a gloriously lit scale model that this district is due to be twice the size of the business district, with taller, brasher and costlier buildings. It is dizzying to speculate what the population will jump to when all these buildings are in use. The sheer scale of what is going on here begins to seep in.

They are right in the middle of the greatest realignment of effort in the history of humanity, and, cultural aspects aside, we are here to witness it. A couple of days later we are given a whistle-stop tour as an introduction. Perhaps I should elaborate on that term “whistle-stop”. Anyone involved in field-sport training will understand the principle: a whistle blows and a group of people go like hell, until the whistle blows again, and they stop. The stop may be long, or the stop may be very short, but when the whistle blows again they go like hell.

Our tour of Binhai New District is the first real whistle-stop tour I have been on. There is so much they want to show, so little time. Instead of whistles they have extremely polite ladies and gentlemen who smile, nod and extend their arm in the direction I should have gone some seconds ago. Eventually one of them, thinking perhaps that I do not understand, makes a rapid paddling motion with the other hand.

But I have a question. Their eyes widen. The girls put their fingers over their mouths to hide their smiles. They exchange glances. The organisers have come back to see if there has been an accident. Trying not to laugh, they explain that I am holding up the show.

I should explain: we are on a viewing platform inside an exhibition building, looking down from a height of two storeys at a high-tech interactive model of Binhai New Area. The model covers most of the ground floor of the building. You need to be two storeys up to see it all.

I have just realised that all the colossal building projects I have seen in the flesh represent only a tiny per cent of what they are building right now, never mind what they are planning.

“You will see.”

They nod and smile.

“Later.”

We are bought into a huge, cinema-style auditorium, where we are machine- gunned with information and aspiration. On a huge (I have to stop saying that) curve-around screen we see plans being discussed, portions of land shifted wholesale, technology accelerating beyond imagining, construction on a scale unprecedented.

They rattle through the industries, one by one, catapulting us from the industrial revolution to the space age, and finish with images of people being happy.

Attendants are smiling, gesturing toward the exit. We stagger from our seats. We are novelists and poets, remember? Sensitive souls, not hardened industrialists. What did my friend from Croatia make of it? He raises a palm. “Main impression? I am nothing. Irrelevant. I cannot see myself any more.” Our American friend has remained more aloof. “There is just no way you could do that in a democracy.”

I know what they mean. Imagine if my grandparents’ cottage was in the way of that lot. And the Celtic Tiger shopping centre would have been at least 10 times the size.

The difficulty here is one of viewpoint. China has a politburo of 24 members, headed by a standing committee of nine, and these guys have a population of more than a billion to look after, in places ranging in sophistication from the equivalents of downtown Manhattan to the Central African Republic, from the fastest expanding roll-call of billionaires to an average income of $6,000 a year, with half the population on a tenth of that. Broad strokes will be required.

Industry and infrastructure are naturally concentrated in the coastal areas of the east and south, but the population is spread throughout. So what they plan to do is shift 600 million people, about the population of Europe, from rural agricultural to urban industrial, within about 10 years.

Once you accept that, the maths are simple. They have to construct the equivalent of a major European capital every month. Think about that for a moment. “Rome in a day” no longer sounds so impossible. There is no time for niceties.

So is the present city bursting with people waiting to get into all these new buildings? No, it is not. This is not market-driven development; it is centrally planned. It will happen not organically but when and where they say so.

The day after our tour I enter an office building of 20-plus storeys where SPK Coffee House is advertised on the first floor. Coffee is apparently not a beverage of choice with the Chinese, because they have such a fabulous variety of teas that are actually good for you. But I am still jet-lagged, and no coffee is available in our accommodation. The lobby of this huge building is not busy, and in the coffee shop, a grand affair with an area of velvet-covered settees, I am the only person.

One gets an eerie feeling. I cannot tell if it is the calm before a storm, the laboured breathing of a white elephant, or the echoing silence of a ghost building. Time will tell. But if anyone can pull off this metamorphosis of society, it is the Chinese. They are doing it right now. They will simply persevere. And it occurs to me that although Castleconnell seems a crazy place to have opened a Chinese restaurant in the first place, Bamboo Gardens has lasted against all odds, and will probably survive the recession if anyone can. It would no longer surprise me.

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